The Battle of Stalingrad: A Battle That Changed the Course of World War II

This month, more than three-quarters of a century ago, the deadliest battle of World War II was being fought. More than four million combatants fought between the Nazi and Soviet armies in the colossal battle at Stalingrad. Over 1.8 million lost their lives. In the five month-long battle, the death toll of Soviet soldiers’ exceeded the number of total American soldiers’ casualties in the entire war. It surely makes the Battle of Stalingrad one of the deadliest battles mankind has ever witnessed.

Background

After decisive victories over France, Poland and others, Nazi army was looking invincible. Then, Hitler along with the support of the German High Command (Oberkommando des Heeres, or OKH) launched Operation Barbarossa, the largest military offensive in the entire history of human-kind.

The Battle of Stalingrad - A Battle That Changed the Course of World War II: German tanks during Operation Barbarossa
German tanks during Operation Barbarossa
German tanks in the Soviet Union preparing for an attack as part of Operation Barbarossa, July 21, 1941.

Owing to the ever-heightened confidence, the Nazis thought the Union would fall in the matter of six weeks. The prediction was seeming to be correct. The attack in June of 1941 was a complete surprise for Stalin, and the Red Army was completely underprepared. By the end of December, the Red Army had lost 5 million troops.

The Battle of Stalingrad - A Battle That Changed the Course of World War II: Operation of Barbarossa Map

Despite the heavy losses, the Red Army continued to resist. Now, it was getting frustrating for the German Army as for each military division defeated, the Red Army got ready with another division to fight. The Chief of the OKH staff, General Franz Halder, noted in his diary that

“It is becoming ever more apparent that the Russian colossus…. Has been underestimated by us…. At the start of the war we reckoned with about 200 enemy divisions. Now we have already counted 360… When a dozen have been smashed, then the Russian puts up another dozen.”

The Battle of Stalingrad - A Battle That Changed the Course of World War II: German armor attacking Istra
German armor attacking Istra, 40 kilometers west of Moscow, Nov. 25, 1941.

In October, the Wehrmacht (term used for the German Army) launched Operation Typhoon, which was aimed at capturing Moscow by Christmas. As the bitter cold arrived, the odds went in the Red Army’s favour. The Red Army with their counter-offensive succeeded in halting the German advance. 

During these bitter cold winters, the OKH was planning a renewed offensive in the spring. Operation Blue was thus born, an assault to capture the oil fields of the Caucasus, and then push on to the Volga. Launched in 1942, the operation caught the Red Army off-guard as they were expecting a renewed offensive towards Moscow. As a result, within the matter of two weeks Wehrmacht reached 300 miles into the Soviet Territory.

The Battle of Stalingrad - A Battle That Changed the Course of World War II: General Friedrich von Paulus
General Friedrich von Paulus

Then in August, an unexpected directive came from Hitler. The Sixth Army under General Friedrich von Paulus was ordered to proceed towards Stalingrad. As Stalingrad was named after Stalin, this advance had both symbolic and strategic reasons. 

The world was about to witness the new age of military operations, The Urban Warfare.

Battle of the Stalingrad begins

The Battle of Stalingrad - A Battle That Changed the Course of World War II: Stalingrad after German Bombing
Stalingrad after German Bombing

By August 23 of 1942, the German Army was already in the Suburbs of Stalingrad. Upon their arrival, the German Army was shocked to see that the civilians had raised the arms to defend their city. Not only this, the Soviet Army also had a lot of women as snipers, and combatants which shook the Germans to their core. The desperate air attack by the Germans reduced the city into rubble. As the tanks were impassable through the city, it became a perfect terrain for the defenders.

The Battle of Stalingrad - A Battle That Changed the Course of World War II: Not one step back

With Germans approaching the city, Stalin issued Order No. 227, with its renowned command:  “Ni Shagu Nazad!” (Not one step back). The horrific reality awaited the Soviet Army. Outnumbered and lacking air support, 62nd and 64th Soviet Armies paid an enormous price. The 13th Guard which entered the battle with 10,000 mens virtually ceased to exist; it lost 80% of the soldiers in the first week of engagement.

The Battle of Stalingrad - A Battle That Changed the Course of World War II: General Vasily Chuikov
General Vasily Chuikov

In September, General Vasily Chuikov was sent to hold command of the city by Stalin. General Chuikov was intolerant towards stepping back. This excerpt from Chuikov’s journal illustrates the same point: 

“When I got to army headquarters I was in a vile mood. Three of my deputies had fled… But the main thing was that we had no dependable combat units, and we needed to hold out for three or four days…We immediately began to take the harshest possible actions against cowardice. On the 14th I shot the commander and commissar of one regiment, and a short while later, I shot two brigade commanders and their commissars. This caught everyone off guard. We made sure news of this got to the men.”

Even after this brutality, Chuikov gained the respect from his units as he himself was a fighter, and he himself followed what he preached. Even after getting buried alive twice by the German Bombers, he still kept his camp just 200 metres away from the German frontline.

The Germans were pouring more and more men into the city. By November OKH poured around 1.2 million men, around a third of its strength on the southern front.

Events leading to the end of the Battle of Stalingrad

As the battle seemed never ending, Generals Alexander Vasilevsky and Georgy Zhukov at Stavka (the Red Army High Command) came up with a plan that had the potential of putting an end to the struggle in the city. They advocated a major double encirclement of the entire Sixth Army of Germany. On November 13 of 1942, Stalin approved their plan- Operation Uranus.

The Battle of Stalingrad - A Battle That Changed the Course of World War II: The Russian Army surrounding the German Army
The Russian Army surrounding the German Army

On the snowy morning of November 19, the Soviet struck. Over 1.2 million Soviet soldiers encircled the German Sixth Army. Within the next four days the 300,000 Axis Soldiers were completely trapped by the Red Army. Hitler tried several times to pierce into the pocket but failed. Even the hope of getting an air supply was beyond the capabilities of the Luftwaffe.

The Battle of Stalingrad - A Battle That Changed the Course of World War II: Geramn soldiers frozen to death
German soldiers frozen to death

By December, all the airlift efforts were stopped. The German soldiers were dying at an alarming rate. They were not equipped with the appropriate equipment to face the harsh Russian winters. The sentries were frozen to death while holding their guards. Even worse was that the typhus epidemic ravaged the survivors. As medical treatment was impossible, the diseased soldiers were left in the open to die. Soon the ration also reached zero, which gave rise to the rumours of cannibalism.

The Battle of Stalingrad - A Battle That Changed the Course of World War II: Captured German soldiers after the Battle of Stalingrad
Captured German soldiers after the Battle of Stalingrad, January 1943.

As the conditions were becoming hostile, Hitler played his last card. In order to encourage his army, Hitler made Paulus his Field Marshal on January 30, 1943. As no German Field Marshal had surrendered in the past, Hitler thought Paulus would kill himself rather than getting captured. Instead Paulus, caring for his troops surrendered on January 31, 1943. The remaining 91,000 men of the Sixth and Fourth armies surrendered on February 2. Only about 6% would survive the Soviet captivity.

Paulus’ troops surrendering marked an end to the most horrific battle of World War II.

Devastation caused by the Battle of Stalingrad

The Soviets recovered 250,000 German and Romanian corpses in and around Stalingrad, and the total casualties of the Axis soldiers is estimated by 800,000. Out of the captured 91,000 Axis soldiers only 5,000-6,000 made way to their homeland; the rest lost their lives in Soviet captivity.

On the Soviet side, Russian war historians estimate that 1,100,000 Red Army soldiers lost their lives. An estimated count of 40,000 civilians also lost their lives.

Stalingrad was proclaimed a Hero City 

The Battle of Stalingrad - A Battle That Changed the Course of World War II: The Motherland Calls statue
The Motherland Calls, statue in Volgograd, Russia, commemorating the sacrifices of Soviet soldiers during the Battle of Stalingrad (1942–43).

Stalingrad was formally declared the Soviet Union ‘s Hero City in 1945 for its defence of the motherland. The building of a huge memorial complex dedicated to the “Heroes of the Stalingrad War” on Mamayev Hill, a central high ground in the war that dominates the landscape of the city today, began in 1959. The memorial was completed in 1967; its focal point is “The Motherland Calls”, a great statue of a winged female figure carrying a sword aloft, 52 metres (172-foot) high. The tip of the sword reaches 280 feet (85 metres) into the air. The tomb of Chuikov, who led the Soviet push to Berlin and died as a Soviet Union Marshal nearly 40 years after the Battle of Stalingrad, is in the Mamayev Complex.

Significance of The Battle of Stalingrad

A major factor that helped an Allied victory during World War II was the Battle of Stalingrad. This was mostly for two reasons. The first reason being that the Battle of Stalingrad marked the end of the advance of Germany into eastern Europe and Russia. The second explanation, the first major German loss during World War II was this battle.

Even Adolf Hitler and his council deemed it necessary to hide the truth of their loss in Stalingrad from their people as revealing the truth would have devastated their morale

The Germans did not advance any further into eastern Europe or Russia after they fell in Stalingrad. This is because the Soviet army gained strength and spent a lot of the Second World War battling the Germans to get back the land they had lost. This made a huge difference as Germans were not spreading in at least one direction anymore.

This first major win was crucial to the victory of the Allies because the morale of the German army was diminished and all the assets used in the Battle of Stalingrad had reduced their resources to a significant extent. For instance, Germany, which already didn’t have much gas ration, lost a major part of it in the Battle of Stalingrad. This made German Army quite weak as now they couldn’t move as far as they could, before the Battle of Stalingrad, which gave Allies an advantage over the Axis Powers. 

The Battle of Stalingrad - A Battle That Changed the Course of World War II: Valour of Soviet people at the battle of Stalingrad

The Battle of Stalingrad is a live example of heroism, and patriotism towards the motherland. This Battle was significant as the civilians, including a very large number of women gathered arms and fought for their homeland. The civilians even set their own homes on fire inorder to ensure that if they lost the battle, they would not leave behind any resource that the Germans could use against their motherland.

The Battle caused a lot of casualties due to the barbaric ambitions of a maniac dictator. But the Soviet people didn’t give in to the devastation brought to their door, and presented a marvellous example of valour that the world would remember till all eternity.

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